NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. securities regulators originally treated the New York Federal Reserve’s bid to keep secret many of the details of the American International Group bailout like a request to protect matters of national security, according to emails obtained by Reuters.
The request to keep the details secret were made by the New York Federal Reserve — a regulator that helped orchestrate the bailout — and by the giant insurer itself, according to the emails.
The emails from early last year reveal that officials at the New York Fed were only comfortable with AIG submitting a critical bailout-related document to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after getting assurances from the regulatory agency that “special security procedures” would be used to handle the document.
The SEC, according to an email sent by a New York Fed lawyer on January 13, 2009, agreed to limit the number of SEC employees who would review the document to just two and keep the document locked in a safe while the SEC considered AIG’s confidentiality request.
The SEC had also agreed that if it determined the document should not be made public, it would be stored “in a special area where national security related files are kept,” the lawyer wrote.
In another email, a New York Fed official said the SEC suggested in late December 2008, that AIG file the document under seal and then apply to the regulatory agency for so-called confidential treatment, if central bankers wanted to stop the information from becoming public.
The emails were included in the mountain of documents the New York Fed turned over last week to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which will hold a hearing Wednesday into the AIG bailout and the New York Fed’s role in trying keep the specific terms of that Fed-engineered rescue in November 2008, from being made public.
More than a year later, the Fed’s bailout of AIG remains controversial because it funneled nearly $70 billion to 16 big U.S. and European banks that had bought credit default swaps from AIG. Banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc, Societe Generale and Deutsche Bank had bought those insurance-like derivatives to guard against defaults on hundreds of securities backed by subprime mortgages.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have labeled the AIG bailout, in which the New York Fed created a special entity to purchase those securities from the banks at essentially their face value, a “backdoor bailout” for the 16 financial institutions.
The new batch of emails, along with others that have become public in recent weeks, reveal that some at the New York Fed had gone to great lengths to keep the terms of the bailout private and the SEC may have played a role in contributing to some of the secrecy surrounding the AIG rescue package.
“The New York Fed was orchestrating what can only be characterized as an extreme effort to ensure that details of the counterparty deal stayed secret,” Rep. Darrell Issa from California, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said through a spokesman. “More and more it looks as if they would’ve kept the details of the deal secret indefinitely, it they could have.”
In March, some of the secrecy surrounding the AIG bailout began to fall away when the insurer, under pressure from Congress and the SEC, agreed to publicly name the 16 banks that got money in the rescue package and how much each received.
But AIG, largely at the prodding of the New York Fed, refused to make public all of the information in the controversial document, officially called “Schedule A — List of Derivative Transactions,” according to the emails turned over by the central bank to Capitol Hill. AIG continued to seek confidential treatment from the SEC for the redacted portions of the five-page filing.
Last May, the SEC did grant AIG’s request for confidential treatment for the remaining redacted portions of the Schedule A filing. The redacted parts include the CUSIP, or trading ID, number for each security on which AIG wrote a CDS contract, as well as the face value of each individual security that AIG had insured against default.
The SEC agreed to let AIG keep that information confidential until November 2018 — or the 10th anniversary of the bailout. Critics contend that without the redacted information, it is difficult to determine which of the 16 banks had held the worst-performing securities, and which banks originated the worst of the troubled securities.
The New York Fed has argued the information needs to remain confidential to enable BlackRock Inc, which manages the portfolio of securities bought from the banks, to compete with hedge funds on an even playing field.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has drawn fire for his role in the bailout, was set to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. Geithner, who led the New York Fed at the time of the AIG bailout, has said he was not privy to the discussions about what information AIG should or should not release to the public and the SEC.
New York Fed spokeswoman Deborah Kilroe said on Friday that the more than 250,000 pages of documents provided by the central bank to Congress “demonstrate that the FBNY’s actions assisted AIG in ensuring the accuracy of its disclosures and protected important U.S. taxpayer interests.”
For its part, SEC has said it pushed AIG to make public the list of banks getting bailout money and only signed off on the request for confidential treatment after the insurer released that information. SEC spokesman John Nestor said: “The SEC required AIG to make public all of the information in Schedule A that was material to an investor in AIG.”
But this latest round of emails reveals that it was an official with the SEC in December 2008 who recommended that AIG and the New York Fed could seek confidential treatment for the Schedule A document as an alternative to making the entire document public.
In November, a New York Fed lawyer, in another email, had said he thought it was “highly unlikely” the SEC would grant confidential treatment for the document.
AIG and the New York Fed took the SEC’s advice and filed a heavily redacted version of the Schedule A on January 14, 2009, and at the same time requested confidential treatment for the redacted portions.
The emails also discuss that BusinessWeek magazine had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the document and the confidential treatment request was a way of dealing with that and other possible requests by the media for the document.
Reporting by Matthew Goldstein; Editing by Maureen Bavdek